Rescuing the State

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By Prof John Harbeson

The two countries in sub-Saharan Africa whose trajectories I have most closely followed throughout my professional life, Kenya and Ethiopia, could become pace-setters in the fundamental and profoundly important task of reconstructing their states.

Under the leadership of new prime minister Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia is preparing the groundwork for the formation of a truly post-imperial state after failed and corrupted, authoritarian initiatives by the military regime from 1973-1991, and the current Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Republic Front (EPRDF) from then to the present. And I am intrigued by the idea afloat in Kenya of conducting lifestyle audits on all state workers from the president on down which, if done impartially and professionally, may bring to light wealth gained improperly through corruption.

No other sub-Saharan African state appears to be on a similar trajectory with the possible potential exception of South Africa under new President Ramaphosa, which contemplates finally addressing land holding inequality by the radical means of expropriation without compensation as well as a full assault on corruption magnified by the predecessor Zuma regime.

The core issue is what a rescued state would look like, one presumably purged of systemic corruption and grotesque inequality for starts, but what else? Implicitly, a state rescued from these besetting ills would be one that acquired new greater legitimacy – legitimacy of the polity itself, not simply the ruling regime within it and its putative monopoly of coercive power over a compulsory community, as the early 20th Century German sociologist Max Weber enduringly defined it.

Citizens’ interests did not appear to factor in legitimising the state as he conceived it. Too easily, for academics and policymakers alike, this definition routinely suffers from eductionism to be all but synonymous with ruling regime bureaucracies and security forces, effectively leaving citizens out of the equation. In the same vein, the late Charles Tilly found that European states were the products of war and war preparation, but he was careful not to extend this finding to other regions of the world.

I have long been convinced that the idea of the state in the 21st Century must be detached from ruling regime and elevated above it such that the state itself, as well regimes ruling in its name, must gain and retain at least the tacit consent of citizens to be governed as one people within it.

Beyond the rights and duties of citizens normally associated with the practice of democratic governance, a legitimate modern state would secure citizens’ life styles. Secure citizen life styles would include freedom to live and work anywhere in the country, freedom from corrupt and exploitative government action (e.g., residential displacement), effective access to public services (health care, education), as well as employment and environment safety individually (treated water and sewage) and collectively (sustainable policies and development). Probably only democratic government, through the rule of law, could establish and sustain such a state but democratic practice as conventionally understood is certainly not synonymous with such a state.

The procedural requirements for auditing officials’ lifestyles have been well set forth in a recent essay by former chief justice Willy Mutunga. However, I suggest that an implicit objective of lifestyle audits in Kenya as outlined would be not just a fairer, more egalitarian, and accountable government but a more stable and secure state itself.  Neither the narrower nor the broader objective of lifestyles can be achieved if those of citizens are left out of the equation. The true broader scope of this initiative in the Kenya context cannot be permitted to deter the government from energetic pursuit of the end: a viable, just 21st Century state.

Ethiopia’s quest for, at long last, a viable and just post-imperial state is profound. Where Kenya arguably has a state structure inherited from colonial times, now finally democratized with the Constitution of 2010, Ethiopia only has a ruling regime that has equated itself with the state, in Weberian terms, but one whose very existence is at issue in both respects. 

Prime Minister Abiy must oversee construction of a modern post-imperial state where fundamental requirements of such a state are not now extant. Freedom to live and work is effectively restricted by ethnic definition of putatively semi-autonomous regions, corruption is a serious problem as is EPRDF governance of
the economy, and residential displacement is among the most in the continent. Access to public services has improved over the years but is still below the mean even for sub-Saharan Africa.

Abiy has taken impressive steps to reconcile opposition parties as a foundation for establishing free and viable multiparty electoral competition. But his deeper task is to establish democratic governance in a way that facilitates building a viable post-imperial state not just in the narrow Weberian sense but in the larger sense of 21st Century state, along the lines suggested above. (

— Writer is a professor of Political Science Emeritus, and a professorial lecturer of African Studies at Johns Hopkins University

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